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Zelenskyy denies any role in the plane crash that killed Wagner Group chief Prigozhin


More now on the apparent death of Yevgeny Prigozhin and how it's being received in Ukraine, where the Wagner Group engaged in some of the most brutal fighting over the past year. At a press conference this week, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy denied any role in the plane crash.


PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

SIMON: He had nothing to do with it, he said. Everybody knows who did it. NPR's Brian Mann is in Kyiv. Brian, thanks for being with us.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Moscow, of course, is denying that President Putin ordered Prigozhin's death. What do you hear from officials and civilians in Ukraine?

MANN: Yeah, I guess the best way to describe it would be gallows humor here. There are a lot of darkly funny memes circulating on social media making fun of Prigozhin's fate. Remember, this is a guy who's viewed here with loathing. His Wagner forces, often made up of freed prison inmates and criminals, have been used as shock troops against Ukraine. They've been accused of savage war crimes. So Prigozhin's death is seen as a moment of real victory here. Here's President Zelenskyy joking with reporters.


ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).


MANN: What he says there, Scott, is, "When Ukraine asked the people of the world for help with airplanes, this isn't what we had in mind." Zelenskyy then went on to say more seriously that Prigozhin's death would help Ukraine.

SIMON: And if Prigozhin is dead, how might that make a difference on the battlefield?

MANN: Well, Wagner troops were among the most effective units fighting for Russia in Ukraine. You know, they've been out of the fight since Prigozhin's brief mutiny in June, so it's not like this is going to open a big new gap in Russia's defensive lines, but it does point to continuing disarray and infighting in Russia's top military leadership. There were also reports this week that Sergei Surovikin, a top Russian air force general, may have been purged because of his ties to Prigozhin. You know, by contrast, Ukrainians and their military commands still appear really unified and focused on winning this war.

SIMON: But we have heard their counteroffensive is moving slowly on the ground. Is that still the case?

MANN: I think the big picture here is a slow, grim and bloody fight. Ukraine appears to be pushing forward. Some military analysts believe they've opened some gaps in Russia's first big defensive line, but Russia laid vast minefields and set up artillery batteries that made an effective barrier in that wide-open, flat terrain where this fight is happening. So far, that's stifled any Ukrainian breakthrough. NPR has reported this week that some U.S. officials are impatient with Ukraine for not concentrating their forces more, not trying to punch through in one place. But Ukrainian officials, they're asking for patience. They insist they are making progress.

SIMON: Brian, what is morale like among the Ukrainian people with whom you speak?

MANN: Yeah, this is interesting, Scott. I'm back now in Ukraine after a year away, and I expected to find things a lot more grim. I expected to hear more exhaustion, more dissatisfaction with the pace of the war. And there is some of that. But overall, I'm surprised by how enthusiastic and driven Ukrainians still are. I visited Shevchenkove, a town near the Russian front lines this week, and even there, where missiles hit regularly, people told me they're 100% convinced that Ukraine will win.

SIMON: NPR's Brian Mann in Kyiv, thanks so much for being with us.

MANN: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.